Sunday, July 20, 2014

What in the World?

July 20, 2014 –– Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 12:13, 16–19 / Romans 8:26–27 / Matthew 13:24–43
What in the World?

Expletives and swearing were nonexistent in my childhood home but there was a common idiom invariably used to express surprise or befuddlement or shock: What in the world....? I want to use that phrase as a springboard to a common thread in the three readings for today.

First, we might literally be asking What in the world is going on? The world news is not very encouraging. Iraq is in shambles. ISIS is killing Christians/minorities in Syria if they do not convert to Islam. Boko Haram is extending Islamic terror and death in Nigeria. Israel and Hamas not backing down. Russia is flexing its muscle. Malaysia Airlines loses another passenger jet, only this one was shot down. Our own country has more crises than we can handle, from children unleashed on our southern border to bitter social polarizations to political stalemates that only keep us trending into further polarization and weakness. Even locally we cannot escape the litany of recurring abuses and homicides. What in the world is going on?

In the midst of things like this (and world history tells us that the troubles of our world are nothing new), the Wisdom writer affirms that there is no god besides you.... your might is the source of justice.... In our weak and cynical moments we wonder, “what justice?” In that context it helps to remember that Peter writes in his second letter that the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (this was Jesus’ point in the parable) ....The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (3:7,9). Because of his love, God’s justice is tempered with mercy. The Wisdom writer says it this way: with much lenience you govern us.... you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins. As long as we have “today” or “now” (2Cor 6:2) we can turn to God.

But what about the Church itself? Some want to blame the Church for their not turning to Jesus. Why in the world is there discouragement and confusion even in the Church? What about clergy who profane Holy Orders and bring shame on the whole Church? What about self-proclaimed Catholic politicians who seem to give far more loyalty to their secular constituency than to Jesus and the Magisterium? What about people who say they are Catholic but dissent from Church teaching? Jesus tells us that The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. The servants of the householder asked him, “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” The householder told them, “No, in gathering the weeds you might root up the good wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers to gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into the barn.”

There is something in us that wants justice now––when it’s directed at the other guy. We can look around in the Church and see things that do not match our expectations, and we want to clean house (because “problems in the Church are never caused by me!”). Yet in the context of God’s kingdom––even when there are weeds growing among the good grain––God says.... wait.

So, what are we to do while we wait? We are to attend to the field of our own heart. Invite the Holy Spirit to keep your own soil broken and soft and fertile so it will bear good fruit (the fruit of  the Spirit and not the fruit of the sinful nature that St Paul calls the flesh––see Galatians 5:19–24).  St Augustine observed, “Search within your heart for what is pleasing to God. Your heart must be crushed. Are you afraid that it might perish so? You have the reply: Create a clean heart in me, O God. For a clean heart to be created, the unclean one must be crushed.”

This points to a second thing we do while we wait. We pray. But prayer itself can bring another big question: How in the world do we know what to pray for? Well, we pray for the mess that our world is in. We pray for the crises in the Church because weeds are growing along with the good grain. Most of all, we pray for ourselves to remain faithful and to be transformed into the likeness of our Lord.

Still, when it comes to the details––the hard, nitty-gritty of praying, how in the world do we know what to pray for? The solution to this is in today’s epistle reading. Listen to it again:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

God knows how weak we are in both mind and spirit. No one individual has God’s will and the Christian life figured out. We need the Church to teach and guide us. We also need the power of the Holy Spirit to do battle for us in ways that go beyond our comprehension. When we pray, we do not pray alone––the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.

Are you troubled and afraid as the world around us seems to spin out of control? Pray! Are you discouraged that there are people in the Church who do not seem to honor Christ and his Body? Pray! Are you stuck when you try to pray, feeling that you don’t know what to say or that your prayer will not make any difference? Pray! And remember that you do not pray alone.

What in the world is going on? Why in the world is there discouragement and confusion even in the Church? How in the world do we know what to pray for? We find the real answer to those questions is to trust God. Even if God gave us all the particular answers, we are powerless to do anything much. But when we pray, we join with the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. We do not need to see it all. We do not need to understand it all. Our ultimate hope is not in the world. When we confess our Faith, I believe in God, the God of both justice and mercy.... the God whose Spirit intercedes for the saints (that’s everyone who belongs to Jesus) according to the will of God. this is the faith that overcomes. Let the force of this penetrate enter your mind and heart––the faith that overcomes the world.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Measure of Our Identity

Thursday: 17 July, 2014 –– Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 26:7–9, 12, 16–19 / Matthew 11:28–30
The Measure of Our Identity

The opening prayer for today asks for “the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ....” The first reading (Isaiah ) invokes much the same thing with a positive aspiration: Your name and your title are the desire of our souls.

This text from Isaiah recurs in the Daily Office in the Liturgy of the Hours and it has become one of my ongoing prayers. It reminds me to give care to how I am known––the measure of our identity.

Those who have known me through past the few decades are well acquainted with what was an obsession for bird hunting. This shooting sport and all that went with it consumed my spare time, my discretionary spending, and my outward appearance (all my neckties had a bird hunting motif, and I always wore a tie with my tweeds when I hunted). I kept a meticulous hunting journal, built a “shooting library” and decorated my home with upland art. (I did open this paragraph admitting an “obsession”).

About ten years ago there was a serendipitous incident that the Lord used to convict me of this. I was at a cultural event at Messiah College (where I had once been an associate pastor) and one of my former parishioners, whom I had not seen for over a decade, was there. When he saw me he came over with a big smile and handshake; the first words out of his mouth were: “Are you still chasing those pheasants?”

My inner heart heard the Holy Spirit ask a different question: After all these years, is this the first thing that comes to his mind about one of his former pastors? It’s the measure of our identity.

This was another occasion where I consciously invited the Lord to change my heart. I pray for the grace to be a person who, when I am encountered or come to mind, will remind people of the value of knowing and following Jesus Christ. Isaiah gives us this prayer: Yes, for your way and  your judgments, O Lord, we look to you. Your name and your title are the desire of our souls.

May this be the measure of our identity.

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